Flying High With Hessle Audio: An Interview With Ben UFO
, February 3rd, 2011 10:14
Angus Finlayson talks to Ben Thomson about the history of Hessle Audio and the dubstep scene
Founded in Leeds in 2007, the Hessle Audio label brought an outsider's perspective on the then flourishing dubstep scene. In the intervening years we've been treated to a string of dazzling 12"s, including debuts from some of the most original and accomplished producers of recent times - Joe, Elgato and Blawan among their number. Its no-frills promotion and unwavering commitment to fresh sounds has placed it at the forefront of the UK's current sonic diaspora - not least for the output of its founder members, Ramadanman, Pangaea and Ben UFO.
Of the three, Ben UFO - born Ben Thomson - is the only one who doesn't produce music himself. This is perhaps the main factor in his (relatively) slower rise to fame. But now he's there - quietly finding himself a lynchpin of the UK's increasingly house-fixated community - his technical and creative credentials are rock solid. His fortnightly show on Rinse FM is a must for the scene's connoisseurs, and his live sets can be as varied as they are captivating. One of the most striking qualities of a Ben UFO set is the constant and seamless transition between old and new - blurring the line between the DJ's twin roles as crate-digger, unearthing the fossilised delights of the past, and as purveyor of hot-off-the-hard-drive exclusives. You could argue that this is something happening in the wider UK scene right now. But nobody does it better than Mr. UFO.
The Quietus caught up with the vinyl fanatic and all round gent in a Peckham boozer to discuss current and future activites, a few days after a five-hour appearance with Joy Orbison at London's Plastic People.
How was Plastic People on Friday?
Ben Thomson: It was really good. I ended up not knowing many people inside because it got so busy so early. Everyone I knew got there late, and it was rammed. I thought I'd find the length really intimidating, but it ended up working quite well between the two of us, we sort of balanced each other out.
Was it a back to back set all night?
BT: We planned it fairly rigidly, thinking we'd do longer slots near the beginning and then go back to back later, but as soon as we started, all the stuff we had planned kind of fell by the wayside, we just kind of went with it. That's how I would approach a normal DJ set, just go in blind, and feel my way through it. So I think if I was gonna do that again I would try and approach it more like I would any other set. Before you've done something that long, five hours sounds like a long time.
You do use [digital DJing software] Serato, but you've said before, you like to play vinyl where you can. When you're trying to keep an open mind about how to approach a set, how do you decide what goes in your record bag?
BT: It's difficult, but I guess you just have to be ruthless in the end. And that's one of the positives of vinyl, is that you can't load up your bag full of stuff that you kind of like or might like enough to play on a certain occasion. You have to really believe in it. And that's something that comes with investing in a piece of music financially and emotionally as well. It kind of forces you to filter out what you could live without. But that process is made much easier because I'm awful for leaving things to the last minute! So what tends to happen is I have all these ideas of records I might want to play tonight, then I have half an hour to pack my bag and I can't find any of them! So I end up just chucking stuff in.
You seem to be pretty busy at the moment, playing in and out of the country most weekends. Have things really picked up for you recently?
BT: Last year was really good. That was the first time that I was really travelling around almost every weekend - at least three or four times a month. And this year it's looking like getting even busier which is nice, but it feels like a natural culmination of quite a lot of work. It's built up quite naturally, rather than like having a record out and suddenly you're getting bookings.
Do you feel that being a DJ but not a producer - as opposed to your Hessle colleagues - has held you back in terms of the level of exposure you get?
BT: I think it has, but I think that's normal and that's probably the way that it should be. You have to give people a reason to see you live, and if people can listen to a record you've made and decide whether it means something to them, then they can decide in the space of four minutes whether or not they want to go and see you. But if all you have to offer is your DJ sets then that requires a bit more time - they need to hear you on radio a few times or whatever. Also, I think there's less to write about good DJing than there is about good producing. Creatively it's a different process, it's less immediate. There are a lot of interesting things you can say or think about releasing, making music, but digging for records you like is fundamentally quite a boring process! [laughs] There's less to say about it.
Do you think it's a dying art?
BT: I think it's important to say that actually digging for records is not an art form. It's quite dull. Until that moment where you find a tune that you fall in love with, it can feel very routine and quite boring. Going to a record shop can be a bit more interesting because at least you're chatting to people, you're interacting with other people. But if you're sitting at home and listening to tunes on Youtube, going through Discogs or whatever, it can feel absurd. Unless you find something that you like it can feel like a really pointless way to spend a lot of time. But DJing itself, that's separate and that definitely feels like something creative - to me anyway. A lot of people say that it's just other people's music, blah blah, but I think you can express something different through playing two different bits of music together, than you can by playing one on its own. But again, it's less easy to pin down why that might be.
Do you think people like you, Oneman, Jackmaster - pure DJs as it were - do you think a scene needs those people? Do you perform a vital function?
BT: I hope so! [laughs] It'll become clear if it doesn't because we'll stop getting bookings. But at the moment it feels like we have something to contribute. And I think things like Jack[master] winning best breakthrough DJ [in DJ magazine], getting the Fabric CD and things, that seems to be a positive reflection. But then you know, me and him in particular have been quite lucky in that people were kind of watching us anyway because of the labels that we run, the fact we were associated with producers. That was like a helping hand. If I was trying to do what I was doing without any kind of - I don't want to say reputation but - anything to fall back on, like the label, or being associated with people like David [Ramadanman] and Kev [Pangaea] who both make great music which I get access to before other people; without that it would be really difficult.
The truth is that there are so many great DJs who don't really start getting bookings until they make a record. People like Brackles and Elgato, I think they would say that they were DJs first, producers second. They get booked off the strength of their DJing but it's their production that got people to pay attention to them. Like I said, that's understandable, it's just the way these things work.
The logical question then is, do you have any plans to produce yourself?
BT: Well I've been saying yes to that question for four years, and I haven't done anything about it, so who knows! I always find when I'm listening to music, when I find something that really touches me that I'm not really expecting, it's often because it has a slightly alien quality to it, something that I can't really fathom. And I can't really imagine generating something that can make me feel that way - I can't imagine contriving that. And that's what production is, thinking about something and making it. I quite like that quality of not really understanding what it is about music that makes me like it.
Another thing as well is suddenly feeling able to play music across the spectrum. Branching out tempo-wise means that there is two and a half decades' worth of music to dig through that I haven't heard, and I couldn't hope to listen to all of it. At the moment my focus is kind of on that.
That freedom of selection that you're currently enjoying, would you say that's something that dubstep couldn't provide? The freedom to go from a Chicago track from the mid '90s to something that was made last week?
BT: I think that there is kind of an overemphasis at the moment on this new found freedom to explore through the ages. It's something really direct for people to latch on to, the idea that you can play across tempos and across years. But dubstep itself proved, and jungle and garage proved it - [UK] funky is kinda proving it now, although it's complicated by people playing other kinds of house music. All of those musics proved that insularity and focus can produce unbelievable results. Consistency in vibe and tone is something that can be very powerful as well. It's the swing of the pendulum really, things come and go - at the moment it feels like the pendulum is fully on one side.
There's been a lot of debate recently between people who feel that the last year or so in the UK scene has been quite stagnant, and those who feel it's really exciting. In spite of you obviously being excited by certain things right now, do you feel that, on the whole, the scene is in a stagnant phase?
BT: [thinks] It's difficult for me to speak about it, being very heavily involved. I've never been this involved in a scene before really - not so directly anyway. I was going out more at the peak of dubstep, but it was an outsider's perspective. From inside it feels exciting, I feel really positive about the whole thing, and I think if people weren't making music that was interesting me then I'd think it was a problem and I'd start looking elsewhere. But at the moment there are a lot of people from inside our scene making phenomenal music. I'd like to be more articulate about that, but... it's difficult, because I do get wound up - I feel defensive - when people say things like that about the scene, but beyond saying 'come out to nights, listen to music...'
...get absorbed in it...
BT: Yeah, beyond that I can't really say - there's not much else you can say. A lot of the time what frustrates me is that it's a lot easier to write dismissively about music than it is to write interestingly - and interestedly - about it. Even if you're writing positively about something, it's a lot easier to do that by throwing something else into a negative light. I find it difficult to express what I like about this scene, beyond that I find it exciting when I go out.
You mentioned how having access to exclusive tunes through your producer friends has had an effect on your success. This 'Sicko Cell' track has been big recently, with you and a few other DJs having exclusive access, and a lot of speculation about who the producer could be. And there seems to have been a kickback from people saying 'how dare you withhold this information, it's not your place', which I was surprised by. I heard somebody compare it to Jamaican soundsystem culture in the '50s, where RnB records would be imported from the States and have the label scratched off - this idea of music as a secret weapon. How relevant, or achievable, do you think that is in the internet age?
BT: Well it's always been there through Jamaican culture, through UK stuff - even up to the present day. Pinch and Peverelist would never put labels on their dubs, they were just black slabs, you couldn't see what they were. The only writing on them was on the sleeve. And no one made a fuss about it then, but it might have been because people weren't necessarily asking, so they weren't having to give an answer. It's only when there's all these mediums out there to enquire, to try and gather - or hoard - information, that people get frustrated when they can't figure out what something is. But I think it must be an idea that's appealing to people, because since Sicko Cell I've noticed so many producers doing it! [laughs] Putting 'Unknown - Untitled' next to their new beats. That's fine...it feels a little bit artificial sometimes. With the Sicko Cell thing, the guy that built it, he felt that it didn't represent the music he wanted to make, but he still wanted it to be played. He liked the tune enough to want to play it out, and possibly to put it out, but he didn't feel that it was representative of what he wanted to do in the future. And it's as simple as that.
Photo by Will Bankhead
I'd always assumed it was from somebody who didn't want people to draw conclusions about where their sound was heading...
BT: That's another thing about producing rather than DJing: I guess the traditional role of the producer is to build up a body of work that's consistent and works within its own world. But that doesn't mean you might not want to write other kinds of things. When something doesn't fit with where you might be pushing yourself at the time, I guess it can be difficult to know what to do with the tune. Whereas with DJing you're slightly more free to kind of go where you're feeling at the time. That allowed me to really throw myself into house music without any of the qualms that other people may have had. I know that there are people who found it more difficult to go down that route, but still felt the pressure to do so because all the music they were being sent was at 130bpm. But it felt easier for me to go with where the music seemed to be going at the time.
Do you think that kind of versatility is an essential quality for a DJ?
BT: No, people like Youngsta are proof against that. I do the show after him on Rinse, and he quite often sticks about. I know that he's feeling stuff from all over the place, he'll ask me about tunes that really surprise me - old house records or garage records that he might not have been up on at the time, stuff like that. He would never play them out, he wouldn't dream of it, because it doesn't fit with the tone of what he's put out for a number of years. It's just the way you choose to work.
I wanted to talk about Hessle. The label seems to be going really strong still. How has the approach changed since the three of you have all built your own separate careers? Is it hard to hold it all together?
BT: We started the label when me and Kev were in our final year of university and Dave was in his first. Me and Kev moved away from Leeds and Dave stayed up there. So it's always been, you know, get together when we can, talk about things when we can. A lot of it's been through email. It doesn't feel more fragmented than it did at the beginning. The one thing that seems to have changed it that it's a lot less easy to make considered decisions now. It's been really good having the three of us, because we've avoided some mistakes - there were tunes would could have put out that one person wasn't feeling, and it's almost always been the right call. But the disadvantage is that we always require time to discuss things and to decide where we might want to go with a certain tune or whatever. But when there's that many more labels, that many more producers, people expect and require quick decisions. And most of the time we're not really able to do that.
That's why for the most part we've ended up working with our friends, rather than people that have approached us. With Joe and Elgato in particular, they were people who we'd been friends with for years, who we'd been swapping tunes with for a long time. With Joe, we'd been working towards a release for maybe a year before we put anything out. The only person who has approached us and we've worked with has been Blawan, because the tunes were so strong we felt we could make a decision quickly. He's gonna have a really good year this year. He's doing a release for R&S in February.
You've said this looks set to be a really good year. Do you have any major things coming up on the horizon?
BT: We've got a couple of 12"s coming out fairly soon. Hessle 017 is by Pangaea, it's coming out end of February. The next 12" will be two tracks by Peverelist which we're really happy about. He was fairly instrumental in where we went with the label in the early days, and we actually asked if we could release a couple of his tunes a few years ago and it didn't quite work out. So it's good that we're finally able to do something with him.
After that, we do have plans, we've got bigger projects lined up, but we tend to keep things under wraps a little bit until they're close. That seems to have worked so far - it's good to have people focus on things step by step.
Do you consciously try to avoid participating in the hype machine?
BT: Yeah, well who would want to participate in that! We're in a privileged position because we seem to be able to do that and still have people pay attention. I understand that sometimes you have to jump through hoops to get your records heard by certain people, and we do use PR companies, mailout services, those kinds of people. But by and large we're lucky enough now to be able to let the music speak for itself.